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Sun, Oct 19, 2003 - Page 12 News List

Amish in conflict with labor laws

Afraid of the corrosive effects of the teenage leisure culture, the traditional communities want their adolescent males to lean a trade but others argue the dangerous occupation becoming a mainstay of the Amish economy is no place for children

By Steven Greenhouse  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BIRD-IN-HAND, PENNSYLVANIA

"What's my boy going to do if he can't?" the owner said. "Sit on the couch. We're going to lose our work ethic if they can't do this."

William Burkholder, an Amish sawmill operator in northwestern Pennsylvania, told a House subcommittee last week that sawmill work would be safe for teenagers because the legislation now in Congress would require them to remain far from the machinery. (The bill specifies only "sufficient distance," along with adult supervision of youths in the mill, leaving greater definition to interpretive regulation.)

Burkholder acknowledged that he lost part of a finger when, as an adult, he absent-mindedly touched a sawing machine, and noted that a 50-year-old employee recently lost most of his right arm when he tried cleaning out some wood without turning off the saw.

But in an interview he emphasized that the Amish urgently needed a way to keep boys from idleness.

"If we couldn't put our boys to work and they didn't do nothing until they were 18, they'd be absolutely worthless," he said. "We want them to be obedient and to learn a trade. If they don't, they'll be out and getting into mischief. Next thing you know, you'll have a bunch of them getting into dope and drinking and partying."

"Our kids don't do that," he said. "If you have a boy that goes to work, he feels tired and he don't want to go out howling around all night."

The Amish require plain clothing and prohibit driving, use of computers, and television- and movie-watching. They also forbid use of electricity from the power grid; diesel engines are generally allowed, to produce hydraulic and pneumatic power needed to run their businesses.

"What we're seeing is a clash of two different cultures, a clash of modern industrial culture with a more traditional, rural cottage-industry culture," said Donald B. Kraybill, a senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at nearby Elizabethtown College and author of Amish Enterprise: From Plows to Profits.

"The outside community," he continued, "has a distorted assumption of the Amish." Outsiders "don't appreciate the value of children's socialization and orientation right on the job. They think it's oppressing the children when in fact it's not. This is an incubator for Amish values and culture."

Specter, who recently toured several Amish furniture factories, says he came away convinced that Amish teenagers would not be endangered if allowed to become woodworking apprentices.

"I know where the young people would be positioned, they'll be away from the saws and the heavy action," he said. "It's been worked out to make sure that safety is assured. It requires adult supervision."

Representative Joe Pitts, a Republican who represents this area, the nation's largest Amish community, has introduced a companion bill to Specter's in the House.

"These are little family businesses trying to keep their kids in their way of life," Pitts said. "These are not sweatshops in New York City. If the Labor Department wants to find some real violations, they should find some sweatshops."

But some lawmakers remain very skeptical. "Any provision that weakens safety protections for children must be scrutinized with a careful eye," said Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the senior Democrat on the Health, Education and Labor Committee.

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